The night is dark and quiet, the fog thick and wet, clinging to your skin, chilling both your bones and your spirit. The only light is the faint glow of the gas street lamps, their gentle sizzle the only sound you hear outside of your own footsteps and the beating of your heart; suddenly you sense a presence behind you and turn … you are in a Victorian mystery. Mysteries lend themselves to setting whether it’s the streets of Manhattan or a quaint English village. The first great detective stories were published during the Victorian age with Wilkie Collins “The Woman in White”, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders at the Rue Morgue” or the “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle. The era also brought us the crimes of “Jack the Ripper”, whose menace still send shivers down our collective spines. Many modern authors have set their stories during the long reign of Victoria; ranging from the lighthearted cozy mysteries of Emily Brightwell (Mrs. Jefferies mysteries) and Edward Marston (Inspector Robert Colbeck mysteries) to the dark Victorian’s such as Caleb Carr’s (The Alienist).
A wonderful introduction to this era and a generally great read anytime are the Victorian mysteries of Anne Perry. Perry has two rival Victorian series; one featuring William Monk, a London Police Detective who lost much of his memory in an accident and is rediscovering himself again as he looks for clues to the crimes he’s faced with. Monk is a deep rich character, slightly dark and morose, slow to trust and quick to discover deceit. The mysteries tell you much about life in middleclass London during the 19th century; it’s facade of delicacy and decorum hiding a dark underworld of poverty and violence. The first in the series is called “The Face of a Stranger”.
As counterpoint to the adventures of William Monk, Perry also gives us a look at crime in the upper classes. Thomas and Charlotte Pitt delve into intrigue at the highest levels, Thomas Pitt is a police Inspector who married above his station and it’s Charlotte’s access to the landed gentry and aristocracy that gives Thomas the means to investigate the crimes. The first book in this series is “The Cater Street Hangman”.
Both series are well written and historically well researched; the secondary characters that populate the books flesh out the soul of the period. The dialogue and action sequences move the plots along quickly and as you read the main characters become as welcome as old friends.